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Buried Treasure
Project A-ko

by Justin Sevakis,

It's not completely honest to say Project A-ko was my first anime. That honor goes to my uncle's taped-off-HBO copy of Warriors of the Wind, and the myriad dubbed children's shows that commonly aired on Nickelodeon at the time. I knew they were Japanese, and knew that Warriors of the Wind at least was something good. But my curiosity stopped there.

Project A-ko was the first anime that made me want to seek out anime. The story goes that our family was visiting our local Blockbuster Video seeking some entertainment for the weekend. I was about 12 or 13 or so, and Robin was 8 or 9. I was perusing the New Releases wall and noticed a row of unusual additions to the "Hot Singles" shelf -- the place where they put new release stuff that was a little off-the-beaten-path (and usually included B-movies and music videos). This line was an array of anime titles, mostly dubbed but a few subtitled ones as well. The one that caught my eye was this one, but the nondescript and dreaded "Youth Restricted Viewing" sticker prevented us from renting it. Our parents were pretty strict, after all.

My mind raced. What kind of cartoon has nudity in it? The mystery of it, and the sheer foreignness of it all was as attractive as it being forbidden. Perhaps I could brow-beat my mother into letting me rent it at some point. As it turns out, I didn't have to. Robin's friend had bought a bootleg copy at the local comic convention and happily loaned it to us. After a brief maternal approval process (that apparently lasted only until the brief shot of cartoon boob at the five minute mark), I finally got to see the film.

It was, of course, nothing like I could have imagined. It didn't seem to make much sense, and was so over-the-top in its silliness that almost every aspect of the film was a complete mystery. Why were all the songs in English? Were they dubbed? And what was with the strange speech patterns and constant breathless run-on sentences? All these mysteries proved irresistible to 13-year-old Justin. I thought it was the dumbest thing I'd ever seen... but I couldn't stop watching it!

Project A-ko was a strange little project, originally envisioned as an episode of the early softcore hentai series Cream Lemon, then spun off into a seemingly abstract movie project. Few on the creative team were over 24 years old, and each animator (which included such up-and-coming animators as Yuji Moriyama and Kia Asamiya) were given more or less carte blanche over their scenes. As you would expect, some really shine, while others drop the ball. (Somehow, Asamiya's intricate elevator sword fight scene manages to be boring.) In the process, everything from Star Wars to Harmageddon gets lampooned, as do most laws of physics.

The plot, in case you're completely unfamiliar, has to do with a certain red-haired superhuman schoolgirl named A-ko and her annoyingly ditzy friend C-ko, who are both transferring into a new high school in their hometown of Gravaton City, the site of a catastrophic meteor impact sixteen years before. As they introduce themselves to the class, C-ko catches the fancy of B-ko, a spoiled rich girl. She wants C-ko... maniacally. And so, under darkness of night, she takes it upon herself to invent giant robots who will unquestionably bring A-ko down!

A-ko is not easily beaten, and frankly most of the giant robots have such major design flaws that they wind up failing. As for A-ko herself, she has no real quarrel with B-ko, and C-ko isn't interested in becoming her friend. They just want to be left alone. Unfortunately for them, they've also attracted the attention of a fleet of aliens intent on coming to earth and recapturing their lost princess. As the aliens invade, the battle between A-ko and B-ko draws to a truce as they decide to guard what's really important to both of them: the terminally annoying C-ko.

Project A-ko was one of the first anime releases from Central Park Media, and easily one of their most successful. (The early VHS cover was notable for its over-the-top warning on the front of the box "CONTAINS NUDITY".) The film was later sub-licensed to Manga Entertainment UK, who co-produced a dub with CPM. It's this release that got stocked by so many Blockbuster Video stores nationwide. Laserdiscs, DVDs and a release of the soundtrack CD followed not long after.

The thing is, if it weren't so bizarre and absurd, and slapdash in its construction, if it weren't so inexplicable in its constructs and breathless in its silliness, it wouldn't have been nearly the addictive gateway drug it proved to be. When you think about it, the odds that a production this chaotic could even come together into something that wasn't a complete disaster are absurdly low. And yet, somehow it works. While most Americans would only get a handful of the jokes and references, the show somehow maintains enough inherent weirdness to rise above being a simple parody. It's clearly the work of a bunch of guys with too much youthful energy, all of which were probably having a great time.

The film is filled to the brim with silly moments, most of them carried through pretty faithfully in the dub, which is one of the first - if not the first - dub productions by Manga UK. Handled by what eventually became their regular dubbing staff (including director Michael Bakewell) the dub is one of the rougher sounding, with a less-than-smooth rewrite. It's also by far the most resolutely British sounding Manga UK dub, despite being voiced nearly entirely by American expats. It has a off-center charm to it, despite sounding unnatural and forced. The English screenplay is surprising in how closely it carries through many of the Japanese jokes: teacher Miss Ayumi's incomprehensible lessons go from gibberish English class to... a different kind of gibberish English class (replete with discussions of "Ecumenical Transcendentalism" and whether substance is really is a phallic illusion). However, even my nostalgia tinged enjoyment is clouded by the admission that the Japanese version is still a lot funnier.

A-ko was successful enough in Japan to spawn an annual OAV sequel for three years afterwards (which have their moments, but come nowhere near the magic of the original), as well as an indescribably terrible spinoff OAV series known as A-Ko the Versus. As if to further ruin my memories of the original, the sequels were given a more competent (but far less weird) dub by Ocean Group. I've heard that Manga UK released those as well, and I wonder if the original cast was reunited for them. I hope to find out someday. Because, to me, A-ko will always speak with odd British inflections.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
The Collectors' Series DVD of Project A-ko (jam-packed with special features, some of which were edited by yours truly) is out of print now, and starting to get a little hard to find. The disc is restored from the best master we could find at the time, which was the old master tape used to make the Japanese laserdisc. It's not perfect or anywhere close, but from what we were told it's probably the only thing left. A Japanese DVD was released shortly after ours, and I'm curious if it was produced from our restored master. It also features the highly memorable promo video that showed the Los Angeles-based musical team that produced the still-amazing soundtrack.

Every release previous to this is inferior (as it uses a letterboxed master that cut off the top and bottom of the picture), so that Collector's Series DVD is the one to look out for. If you're on a tight budget, used copies of the VHS tapes can be found online for less than the cost of shipping it. Make sure to avoid the old DVD produced by Image, which was famous for being one of the worst anime DVDs ever produced.

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